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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Return of Child Labor

In 1909 a factory inspector did an informal survey of 500 working children in 20 factories. She found that 412 of them would rather work in the terrible conditions of the factories than return to school.

— Helen Todd, "Why Children Work," McClure’s Magazine, April 1913

In one experiment in Milwaukee, for example, 8,000 youth...were asked if they would return full-time to school if they were paid about the same wages as they earned at work; only 16 said they would.

— David Tyack, Managers of Virtue (1982)

In an agrarian society, children are producers from almost the time they can walk. They work the farm side-by-side with their parents, thereby both putting food on the table and learning adult methods of thought and speech. Children in such a society are expected to pull their own weight and help provide for the family. In such a setting, the example of adult habits and interactions, specifically the habits of their parents, are constantly before them. Children in an agrarian society are socialized by adults. Prior to about 1820, essentially the whole world was agrarian except for England, which had only just begun industrialization. The agrarian model was how children had always been raised.

This expectation that children should be treated like adults because they had spent the first decade of their life working side-by-side with adults was so common as to merit no discussion at all. Precisely because they were treated as adults, children were expected to master adult subjects. Consider:

  • At the age of nine, Samuel Johnson was, according to his own testimony, reading and enjoying Hamlet.
  • At the age of ten, David Farragut, the U.S. Navy’s first admiral, was commissioned midshipman on the warship Essex while Benjamin Franklin was helping his father in the chandler business.
  • At the age of eleven, the fatherless George Washington started school. Though judged an absolutely ordinary intellect by everyone who knew him, he was already as literate as today’s college graduates before he crossed the threshold.
  • At the age of twelve, John Paul Jones began working at sea as a cabin boy, while twelve-year old Farragut – with two more years of experience at sea under his belt – was already in command of a prize ship captured during a fierce battle in which he actively participated. At this age, Thomas Edison, judged feebleminded by the school, was working on a train, and had started his own newspaper using cast-off type from a printer. Before his thirteenth birthday, his newspaper had five hundred subscribers. Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed to his brother, James, the printer. He was also reading Bunyan, Burton, Mather, Defoe, Plutarch, and works of “polemic divinity” or what we would today call Christian apologetics. Andrew Carnegie was a bobbin boy in a textile factory, and a delivery boy a year later. Abraham Cowley was taking infinite delight in Spenser’s epic poem, The Fairy Queene. In colonial Mexico, young girls were able to marry by age twelve.
  • By thirteen or fourteen, Southern women in colonial America could marry.
  • At the age of fifteen, Farragut was hunting pirates in the Mediterranean.
  • Between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, many young men and women in America were getting married. Compare this to ancient Rome, where a fourteen-year old was given his sword and shield and could legally take a wife.
  • At the age of seventeen, George Washington was Virginia’s surveyor general.
  • At the age of nineteen, Lafayette was a major general in the French army and a member of George Washington’s general staff.
  • At the age of twenty, Alexander Hamilton was leading the retreat from New York. By this age, roughly half of the colonial population was married. At the age of twenty-one, Aaron Burr and Light Horse Harry Lee were leading troops into battle.

One might argue that since adult life expectancy was only about forty-five to fifty years, children in pre-industrial society had to grow up fast. Indeed, this is true. But given that children had grown up this way throughout the entirety of human history, save for the last one hundred years, it might be more accurate to say that industrialization forces children to grow up slowly.

Prior to the advent of “professional” education, agrarian America had an essentially one hundred percent literacy rate, as Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed. The adult was prized for his sound judgement, not his technical skills. Samuel Pepys, president of the Royal Society, the most prestigious intellectual body in Europe, and Secretary of the Admiralty, only learned how to multiply and divide after he assumed the latter office. As the British knew, skill at math is pleasant but not a prerequisite for sound judgement.

Washington, Franklin, Edison, Carnegie, Farragut – their childhoods were not exceptions to the rule. Their lives are examples of the rule that had existed for all of human history. They were doing neither more nor less than any other boy their age had ever done. By the age of twelve, boys were expected to be doing adult work in every aspect of their lives: reading, writing, working – it was all the same. There was no such thing as adolescence because these gentlemen and their colleagues had, by the age of twelve, already entered into manhood. They did this through apprenticeships.

Today, biologists tell us that brain development in adolescents is enormously more complex than we first imagined. Due to the adolescent surge of hormones, the teenage brain is subject to fundamental structural changes that affect how teens think and behave. Their brain is changing.

In an agrarian society, teens living through this extremely malleable period are already in an apprenticeship. They live in the midst of adult supervision and guidance. They perform concrete tasks with concrete rewards. The shopkeeper or farmer to whom they are apprenticed models adult standards in his daily life for the impressionable adolescent, and continues to require of his charge high standards of behavior and a high work ethic.

The young man whose pubescent brain begins to undergo enormous change already has a solid foundation of prior adult work experience and habit. He also has a mentor to emulate. These steady him as his biology catches up with his lived experience. The ever-present adult mentors keep the young man in line and on track while his hands continue the work they have always done and his brain becomes accustomed to seeing the world through the newly-formed eyes of an adult. The apprenticeship system both contained and trained young men as they learned to become what they already were – men.

At first, when agrarian society began to move towards industrialization, the agrarian model of apprenticing youth attempted to follow. Children who had worked in the shop and the fields now began to work in the mines and the factories. But experience soon demonstrated problems with this solution. While the farm had many dangers for an unwary child, the mine and the factory had more. Besides, factory work required obedient workers, a caste system in which the men on the floor obeyed a foreman without question. Yankee farmers abhorred caste systems. They had to be broken to obey the new culture.

In order to break a man, you must break his family. In order to break the family, the members must first be physically separated from one another. Agitation for child labor laws began. Children had to be removed from the workplace for their own safety. These laws required the complete segregation of adults and youth, with the youth being thrown entirely out of work. To answer the problem of newly idled youth, compulsory mass schools were created. Between 1870 and 1920, America followed the European example as every state in the Union passed compulsory schooling laws. Industrialization had already begun to tear at the agrarian model of youth education, but with the advent of mass schooling, the last traces of the agrarian system were wiped out.

Now young men were no longer under the personal tutelage of adult mentors, rather, they were grouped en masse with dozens of other young men going through exactly the same unsettling changes they themselves experienced. Whereas the number of adults to apprentices in a trade shop would generally be roughly comparable, or might in certain situations even provide more than one adult per apprentice, this was most certainly untrue of the school. As a result, the culture young people lived in was no longer controlled by the biologically stable adults, it was controlled by biologically unstable young people. This is the mass school environment.

Worse, the young man in the mass school environment no longer had a fixed concrete purpose in his work. It is often noted that young people are not good at abstractions. The agrarian society remedied that by making sure the apprentice dealt in concrete things; concrete work recompensed with cash payment for the adult work done, payment that fed the family. The twelve-year old knew his worth because the family needed his income. Indeed, in an agrarian society, women and children often generated about half of a family’s income.

In the new mass school system, not only was the income the youth formerly generated now lost, the young man was forced to abstract his formerly concrete life during precisely the time he was least able to manage it. What he was doing in school today would pay off at some nebulous, unknown future date, according to persons unnamed. The young man did not know he was useful. Instead he knew he was not useful, and he would not be useful for at least some unspecified period of time. This culture plays to weakness, not strength. It tears the heart out of a young man.

Now, let us note two things. First, the system of compulsory mass schooling is but a century old. It has not worked at all well for at least half its history, and it is proving incapable of reform. Second, America is now a post-industrial society. The economy has over five times more information and service jobs than it does manufacturing and construction jobs. The workplace is no longer dangerous.

Taken together, these two facts indicate a change should be considered. The child labor laws of the late 1800’s ostensibly protected the youth from the ravages of the factory. But the economic landscape has changed; the rationale no longer applies. The workplace no longer represents a life-threatening danger. Likewise, commentators regularly point out that today’s adolescents feel adrift, left out, purposeless. We can say many things about twelve-year olds like Carnegie, Franklin, and Farragut, but we cannot say they were purposeless.

We have millenia of data to demonstrate that the agrarian model of apprenticeship transforms children into stable adults. An information society can implement that model today. At this point, America has literally no reason not to return to the agrarian model of child-rearing. Mass schooling doesn’t work and has never been successfully reformed. The child labor laws are anachronistic. Why do we retain either?

This essay constitutes part of the forth-coming book, Deception: Catholic Education in America. It is scheduled for release in August, 2005 from Bridegroom Press.


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